Copy Cars – Aston Martin F1 accused of copying

Written by Chloé Vertigen | May 30, 2022

Design Rights

Formula 1 is one of the most elite racing sports in the world, featuring 20 drivers in single-seat, open-wheel cars, travelling at speeds up to 223 miles per hour. F1 is not unknown to controversies (as anyone who watched the 2021 season finale will know too well), but most recently F1 has been in the news because of alleged car copying by Aston Martin.

Following a difficult start to the year, the Aston Martin F1 team brought an upgrade for its car to the Spanish GP. The upgrade had a very similar look to parts of the Red Bull car, raising a lot of eyebrows across the grid.

Aston Martin, previously Racing Point, has been accused of copying car designs in the past after starting the 2021 season with a car (lovingly nicknamed the Pink Mercedes) that looked incredibly similar to the previous year’s Mercedes car, which had won the world championship.

In that example, Racing Point gained a huge advantage, regularly finishing in the top 10 and scoring podiums. But ultimately, the team was found to have illegally copied the Mercedes car, and Racing Point was fined by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de L’Automobile, the governing body behind race events such as F1). So far Aston Martin has avoided any fines, with the FIA clearing the upgrades as legal.

Intellectual property and F1

Intellectual property in F1 has always been incredibly interesting to me, with my favourite intellectual property issue being the trade mark infringement proceedings against Haas F1’s former sponsor, Rich Energy.

Here, the key issue is whether Aston Martin has copied the design of the Red Bull car, which touches on various different aspects of IP:

  • Design rights would play a role in the discussion but designs that have a technical role are unlikely to have valid protection because the shape is dictated by a technical necessity rather than a particular design choice. This would be the case in F1 because the car’s aerodynamics are incredibly important in races, where the win can be determined by a margin of hundredths of a second.
  • If design rights don’t apply, patents might. However, it’s unlikely that any F1 team uses patents, partly because it is very costly and time-consuming to get a patent. In a sport where the car designs are rapidly changing and being upgraded, and with new cost caps in place, patents are unlikely to be commercially viable.
  • Trade secrets will be key in this industry. All employees and third parties who work for a team will have signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement, preventing them from sharing any specifications, design documents, design ideas or other information that might help someone re-create parts of a car.
  • The final aspect Red Bull’s solicitors will have considered are any contractual terms, or regulatory obligations, that would prevent Aston Martin from copying car designs. In this case, the FIA has rules in place to prevent teams from using photographs, or other methods of reverse engineering particular aspects of other teams. So far, the FIA has not found any illegal copying by Aston Martin.

At Briffa, we have experience in advising our clients about all things intellectual property – if you have had work copied, or want to find out more about protecting your work, please get in touch with us for a free initial chat!

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